Ballad: “The Hermit and the White Wolf”
Excerpt, “German Ballads, Songs, etc., comprising translations from Schiller, Uhland, Burger, Goethe, Korner, Becker, Fouque, Chamisso, etc., etc.” London: Edward Lumley. 1900.
The Hermit and the White Wolf
Under the shade of the sullen pine,
Where cliffs o’erhang a rugged shore,
A little chapel and a shrine
Stands, with a cross above the door ;
And in the shadow of the cross
Is built a low and rustic cell.
With roof of thatch and floor of moss.
Wherein two holy hermits dwell.
Darkly frowned the rocks around,
And the mighty cliffs by age embrowned ;
The tossing sea did chafe and start
Like visions in a troubled heart ;
The wide and heavy skies were spread
Like a black pall above the dead ;
And pathless wilds of sombre trees
Wearied the gazer’s straining eye—
Even so remorse in terror sees,
Vague, drear, and dark—Futurity!
A solemn charge those hermits bore,
They watched as warders on the shore,
For by no earthly race, ’twas said.
Those gloomy scenes were tenanted ;
And, but for that lone temple there.
And those two watchers, strong in prayer,
The demon troops of shame and sin
Had broken on the lands within,
And carried ravage, woe, and wrong,
Amid the simple peasant throng.
A grey-haired warrior was the one,
His comrade was his valiant son ;
Each had lived a life of fame.
Each had earned a glorious name ;
Though the heart of age in scorn
Coldly turns from earth’s bright things.
Seldom in youth’s cloudless morn
Spirits fold their weary wings ;
Yet Sir Conrad gazed not now
Wistfully on life’s bright track.
For his hand was on the plough,
And not once his heart looked back :
Toil and prayer from sun to sun,
Thus his days were gliding by ;
Meanest things a beauty won
From his soul’s strong energy.
And yet a lone and lovely life
Methinks those watchers must have led,
Their hearts unworn by worldly strife,
By worldly hopes untenanted ;
Their only pomp the gorgeous hues
Which sunset flings upon the hills,
Their only gems the scattered dews
Which sparkle from the leaping rills ;
Their comrades the ancestral deep,
The chainless wind, the wild cascade.
The eagle, whose embattled keep
Yon solemn mountain-crest hath made ;
And for the petty din and jar
Of city-strife and human war.
The brawling of the angry stream,
The roaring of the wrathful sky—
Reality to them a dream,
And dreams their best reality.
Sir Conrad the hermit went forth at eve,
The wood of the stately pine to cleave ;
He was ware of a wolf, so white and so grim.
It came through the thicket and scowled at him.
He hurled his axe at the grim wolf’s head,
Starting and yellng the creature fled ;
But it sinks in its blood, and it strives to rise.
And it stares on the knight with piteous eyes.
Then did the heart of Sir Conrad change
To a causeless softness, sudden and strange;
Down by the bleeding wolf he knelt,
And he stanched its wounds with his woodman’s belt.
The moonshine streamed on its face so white,
And its wide eyes gleamed with a human light ;
And much was the heart of Sir Conrad moved,
As though he had slain a thing beloved.
He lifted it gently from the earth,
And he bore it home to his lowly hearth.
And he laid it down on his couch, bestrown
With odorous thyme and with grass new-mown.
What sound is this, so full of woe.
Like the sob of a woman, plaintive and low ?
Sir Conrad turned to the couch, and there
Lay the form of a maiden, bright and fair.
And through her golden locks, dispread
In beauty over that lowly bed,
The blood was dropping—a piteous sight—
From a wound in the arm so soft and white.
“Oh, mercy’, mercy, sir knight!” she cried.
And her clear blue eyes shone wild and wide,
“I am the child of a wizard of might ;
I was gathering herbs for my sire by night.
“I saw thee pass, and I meant not harm.
But thine axe hath shattered my tender arm :
Oh, slay me not, though life be pain !
Oh, take me back to my home again!”
Scarce need I say what gentle care
The knight bestowed on the damsel fair :
He watched her couch by night and day,
As a mother watches a babe asleep ;
And when eve’s melting shadows lay
In softness over land and deep,
Or sparkled wood, and wave, and lawn,
Clad in the pomp of glittering dawn,
The warrior-hermit kneeled to pay
Meet service to his God, and pray.
Sweetly in that low cot arose
The voices of the sire and son.
Still craving pardon, ere repose.
For guilt incurred, or good undone ;
Or praying, when their toils begin,
“Lord, keep us this day without sin !”
Half in amaze, and half in awe,
The silent maiden heard and saw ;
Heard, how—as strains that fall and rise
In congregated harmonies,
Still oft return, and ever close
On the same note whence first they rose ;—
In all their prayers repeated came
One holy and familiar Name,
One point, where all must meet and blend,
Crown, key, and centre, source and end ;
Saw how, whene’er that Name they spake,
“Forgive us, Lord, for Jcsu’s sake !”
The holy light of placid hope
Came down upon each upturned face.
As generous streams, from clouds that ope.
Fall sweetly on some barren place.
Until the deadness and the gloom
Break into beauty, song, and bloom.
‘Twere long to tell how change was wrought
Within her musing spirit there :
Meekly the Christian’s God she sought;
Sweet to the teacher as the taught
Those holy hours of praise and prayer ! ,
As, rim by rim, and hue by hue,
The shells of inner ocean grow ;
So, deep in Conrad’s bosom grew
A feeling he might scarcely know.
Until the waves of passion bore
Its finished beauty to the shore ;
And much he marvelled so to see
His own heart’s birth of mystery.
Enough—they loved!—the narrow cell
Became a palace, and the waste
A paradise, where angels dwell,
By fear and sorrow undefaced ;
Alas that, as in Eden’s bowers,
The serpent lurked beneath the flowers !
‘Twas eve—before the shrine, apart.
The sire held commune with his heart;
At dawn, upon the maiden’s head.
Should, by his reverend hands, be shed
Those waters by whose living tide
The soul is cleansed and sanctified ;
Fitly to meet so high a rite,
He prayed and fasted through the night.
Before the chapel’s lowly gate
In sweet discourse the lovers sate,
Or silence sweeter still, whereby
Eye spake, with eloquence, to eye.
The twilight heavens were spread above,
One steadfast sheet of pallid blue;
And wailing, like forsaken love,
The wind among the mountains blew ;
The waves came heavily and slow,
Like measured steps of patient woe ;
And on the far horizon’s rim
The severed clouds lay low and dim,
Like crests of phantom-bands afar,
Slow rising, and portending war.
It was an eve to hold the breath,
And muse how life but leads to death !
“Oh, come, beloved!” the maiden said;
“Seek we that blessed spot again,
Where by thy ruthless hand I bled,
And won this rapture by that pain ;
Fain would I tread, secure with thee.
Haunts of forgotten sorcery!”
They wandered forth, and, as they went,
The grey clouds slowly towered around.
And the wild breeze’s low lament
Was by the wrestling billows drowned ;
“Nay, fairest, turn !” Sir Conrad said;
But Ella tossed her graceful head.
Like steed that on the blast can hear
A tone familiar to his ear.
And strangely did her eye’s vague light
Fall on the spirit of the knight ;
“Onward!” she cried; and “onward!” still
Faint echoes answered from the hill.
And now, their noiseless footsteps fall
Upon the forest’s shadowed floor,
Where sombre fir-trees, black and tall,
Rustle in winds that sweep the shore ;
And with that leafy murmur seemed
A sound of hollow laughter blent.
And wan, and white, and fitful streamed
The struggling moonshine as they went,
Where’er the parting boughs unshroud
A sky all dark with gathering cloud !
“No earthly storm is rising here !”
Sir Conrad cried ; “oh, turn thee back !”
“Fear’st thou?—for me, I know not fear!”
She said, and shook her tresses black ;
And half in shame, and half in love.
Still at her side the knight must move.
And now they reach that well-known place,
Amid the clustered trees a space
Where bare above their heads are seen
The wheeling clouds that veil the skies,
And the roar of waves is heard between
The shrieking wind’s appalling cries ;
Yet through the tumult, low and chill.
That hollow laugh is ringing still !
Ah, see! a sudden flash!—ah, gaze!
What hideous sights its gleam betrays !
A thousand shapes around them stand.
With mocking lip and beckoning hand ;
They move, they circle, they advance,
They weave a wild and spectral dance,
Closing around the hapless pair.
With howls that cleave the startled air !
With arms outstretched, and face upraised.
The maiden gazed, and, as she gazed,
The mocking smile, the phantom-stare.
Were mirrored in her face so fair ;
And her wild eyes, so wide, so bright.
Grew less than human in their light !
From her lover’s arm she burst—
She hath joined the troop accurst !—
Through the rising of the storm
Her ghastly laughter rings,
And she seems a spectre-form.
And she treads as if on wings.
She is here and she is there,
Like a bubble on the air.
Rising, sinking, seen—but such,
That it melts beneath the touch ;
So she passes from his hands:
‘Tis a fir-branch in his hold !
Helpless, hopeless, now he stands ;
And the night grows black and cold;
And the phantom-voices die.
And the wind sinks down in sleep,
And beneath a calmed sky
He kneels alone to weep ;
For the spectre-forms have past
With the rushing of the blast ;
And the solitude around
Hath neither shape nor sound !
There, when roseate morning shone.
Still the hapless warrior knelt,
But his face was still and wan,
And his woes were all unfelt ;
Yet his crucifix was prest
(Blessed sign !) against his breast.
Ah, when first he wandered there,
Had love left him time for prayer,
Fiend and spell had sunken down.
Powerless as an infant’s frown !
Sadly, in that spot of gloom.
Reared his sire his lowly tomb.
Murmuring, with a heavy heart,
“The old remain—the young depart!”
As he spake, in mournful trust,
“Earth to earth, and dust to dust!”
Still at every solemn word
Was a distant wailing heard.
Like a wolf’s low howl of pain.
When its little ones are slain.—
Oft, on winter’s sombre eves.
Stealing through the shivering leaves,
Rose that sound, still lingering round
That lone spot of holy ground ;
Where, unhonoured and unknown,
Calmly slept the hermit-knight,
Underneath the cold white stone.
Graven with these words of might—
” Ye who tread the narrow track,
Frail, trembling, sinful—look not back!”